16 October 2023
Katherine Bennett and Colin Church explain how the government’s Critical Minerals Task & Finish Group is making sure UK industry has the materials it needs to transition to net zero.
Since the Industrial Revolution, the world has been powered by fossil fuels. Energy from oil, gas and coal have kept our homes warm, our transport moving and our factories manufacturing.
Now, humanity is transitioning to far more sustainable energy sources. Solar, wind, nuclear, hydrogen, sustainable biofuels – the future of Earth’s energy mix will be significantly more diverse and less environmentally polluting. This is undoubtably a good and necessary journey, and the UK has rightly committed to maintaining a net zero economy by 2050.
To make that net zero transition, we need the right materials. We need lithium, nickel and cobalt to store power in our electric cars, wind turbines and solar panels. We need gallium and germanium for the all-important semiconductors that make so much technology possible. We need copper for upgrading and expanding our national electricity grid infrastructure.
Notwithstanding our net zero aspirations, the UK needs rare metals and minerals for medical equipment, for high-strength superalloys in aerospace and marine manufacturing, and for a whole host of other essential applications which make our daily lives possible.
The UK is not alone in its journey to net zero and its demand for such materials. Nations around the world are also taking steps to reduce fossil fuel use and promote more sustainable energy sources. That means the metals we need, and the critical minerals from which they are refined, will be increasingly in demand over the coming decades.
How can the UK ensure that we get the materials we require to make the transition to net zero? That is the question posed to the government’s Critical Minerals Task & Finish Group which we were appointed by Minster Ghani to head. We are working with UK industry from all sectors to better understand the sum of our collective material needs.
By gathering insights and evidence from industry to characterise the risk to the security of supply of critical minerals for UK manufacturers, the group is designing a framework to monitor critical mineral risk across industry sectors. To build the case for secure and resilient critical mineral supply chains now and in the future, we are also developing a network of experts and advocates to provide independent advice on measures for government, industry and other stakeholders.
The supply chains for critical minerals are incredibly complex, and the first problem to contend with is the surprising lack of visibility. With many SMEs, cross-border transactions and material processing steps involved, it is extraordinarily difficult to see where critical minerals are moving around the world with any real clarity.
This lack of transparency increases price volatility, commercial risks and inconsistent ESG standards. For any plan to stand a chance of working, it needs to be based on evidence and data – and we sorely lack data about critical mineral supply chains.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine gave a real-time demonstration of how severe the impact of geopolitics can be when supply chains are too concentrated. To take just one example, the Russian mining and smelting industry played a central role in the global nickel supply, and sanctions restricting trade with Russia meant international prices of the metal suddenly almost quadrupled.
There are other potential stress points in the international web of critical mineral supply chains. For example, China has an key role in the international market, producing over 90% of the global supply of gallium, an essential mineral for semiconductors used in electronic devices, and over 80% of the rare earth elements needed for permanent magnets in electric motors. UK critical mineral supply chains must be diversified but this will take time, political will and international cooperation.
UK business has a key role to play in securing resilient supply chains. Showcasing the UK as a place to grow green manufacturing and technology companies will entrench our domestic industry in the global critical minerals value chains.
As chief executives of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult and the Institute of Materials, Minerals & Mining, we see the passion of the academics, inventors, engineers and manufacturers who are striving to find more sustainable solutions. The UK must continue to attract investment while supporting our innovative SMEs.
There are encouraging signs for the future of UK critical mineral supply chains. Our country has recently made important international partnerships with the USA, Canada and Zambia, which are opportunities to promote collaboration in securing the critical minerals we need.
On our shores, Cornish Lithium has secured funds to mine domestic lithium. Tata Group is investing in its first battery gigafactory outside of India, which will in turn support Jaguar Land Rover’s future electric models being manufacturer in the UK. With JLR, Nissan and BMW all looking to the UK as a destination for EV manufacturing, we should make the most of this growing network of global suppliers and customers by expanding our domestic critical mineral supply chain.
Businesses are choosing to invest here, and our research and development capability is world leading. But for technology to be commercialised and affordable, and for the UK to reach its net zero goals with thriving green industries, we need the critical minerals that make it all possible.